Spots Before the Eyes
In past conversations with Harold Axtell I had always been a little amused by his obsession with fine points that had seemed unnecessary, even trivial. But now I saw their practical application. Not every bird could be named by simple field marks. Sometimes one had to know the birds extremely well to be able to name them.
What about those birders who had checked off the Brigantine bird as a Spotted Redshank? Many of them were good birders, and every one of them, no doubt, had already had Greater Yellowlegs on their lists. Sure, they knew the yellowlegs. But they didn’t really know it, not in fine detail, as Axtell did. Certainly I did not know the bird at that level either.
Looking back, it seemed I had been lucky not to arrive in New Jersey earlier. With really good luck crossing the continent, I might have made it in three days - it had happened before. I might have arrived Wednesday evening, seen the bird and missed Axtell, and gone away with a super-rare redshank written on my list…because I would never have identified this bird correctly. My approach, my knowledge were just too superficial.
It was late September, and three-quarters of my Big Year had passed already. In the three months that remained, I would be criss-crossing the continent yet again, in search of only a handful of new species. But I resolved to look at birds more carefully from now on, look at them all, common or rare, to see if I could really get to know them. It was the beginning of the end of my interest in listing.